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Criminal justice reform bill passes Legislature

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A criminal justice reform bill passed at the end of the Florida Legislature’s annual session and raises the threshold for felony theft although it dropped a Senate proposal to allow earlier release of some nonviolent prison inmates.

Rep. Paul RennerThe bill allows inmates to receive training and education to help them get occupational licenses from the state and makes it easier for them to get those licenses. Another section cuts the penalty, unless a DUI is involved, for the third offense of driving with a suspended license from a third-degree felony to a misdemeanor, although it carries a mandatory 10-day jail sentence.

One of the Senate’s top goals, allowing some nonviolent inmates to earn gain time and be released after serving 65 instead of the current 85 percent of their sentences, was dropped from the legislation. Also removed was easing minimum mandatory sentencing requirements for some crimes by giving judges more discretion and making retroactive a past action by lawmakers reducing the mandatory penalty for aggravated assault with a firearm from 20 to five years. That was intended to help people who had been sentenced under the state’s 10-20-Life gun laws for firing a warning shot.

The House did agree to the Senate position on raising the felony theft threshold, which was last adjusted in 1992, from $300 to $750. The House had sought $1,000.

“Nothing in this bill will disturb a 50-year low in our crime rate,” said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who shepherded the House legislation. “Our goal when we started this process was to make sure we have the fairest, most just criminal justice system in the country and today we take a large step in that direction.”

Renner, who spoke May 3 just before the House gave the final approval 110-0 that sent HB 7125 to Gov. Ron DeSantis, praised the legislation for giving more opportunities to those being released from prison.

Sen. Jeff BrandesSen. Jeff Brandes, who led the Senate effort, called the bill a good start but expressed disappointment it didn’t go further.

“Obviously there is more that I wish could be done,” said the St. Petersburg Republican, speaking May 2 just before the Senate signed off on the package 39-1. “This chamber supporting looking at — and even entertaining — moving from the 85 percent [of prison time served before release] to another number is bold, very bold.. . .

“I hope over the next few years we will cast a bold vision of what criminal justice reform should look like in this state. . . . About a third of our inmates are functionally illiterate. And a policy that releases people back on the streets with nothing but 50 bucks and a bus pass and then wonders why 72 hours from now they’re homeless and recommitting crimes, it’s a failure of the system.”

Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, called the bill a good start but said much more needs to be done, including allowing earlier release for certain nonviolent offenders, which could save the state $800 million over five years.

“We have got to get this figured out. We have far too many correctional facilities with far too few correctional officers to protect the people in the correctional facilities,” she said, adding more training and education programs are needed.

The final bill apparently was subject to protracted negotiations. The House passed a version, without the 65 percent standard or minimum mandatory sentencing reforms, on April 29. Brandes repeatedly delayed the Senate taking up his version, which had those features, until May 1 when the upper chamber accepted the House positions on those issues.

The Senate gave its final approval on May 2, and the House accepted that version the next day, the last day of the session for considering non-budget bills.

Aside from the felony threshold, rehabilitation and job features, other provisions of the bill make it easier to seal records when a person was arrested but not charged, the charges were dismissed, or the person was acquitted. It reduces non-driving related infractions that can result in the loss of a drivers license. Clerks of court also would be required to hold at least one event a year to help those with suspended drivers licenses get them restored.

In place of having mandatory sending of juveniles to adult court for certain offenses, state attorneys would have to make that decision under the bill.

It would allow the Department of Revenue to avoid suspending a person’s drivers license for nonpayment of child support if that person could show a good faith attempt to find employment.

“I think that’s very important and it’s encouraging to those who are having a hard time and want to meet their obligations,” said Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, praised the occupational license provisions, including allowing the state to count education and training inmates received in prison toward licensing requirements.

“The effect of it will be to reduce recidivism, it will provide opportunity for those who have paid their debt to society to find meaningful work and all that comes along with that. As a result, it will save taxpayer dollars because it will reduce dependence on our welfare system,” he said.

The House and Senate bills were wide ranging and ran 300 to almost 400 pages. HB 7125, according to House records, took parts from or was similar to 52 other House and Senate bills. The Senate version was similar to 60 bills.

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